Body language in dogs can be so confusing can’t it!
“Look at their tail” they say… only to then find out that the tail is too confusing, and a lower wag of the tail could mean something very different to a high wagging tail!
There are so many mixed messages out there about how to read your dog’s body language… no wonder you’re left confused!
It’s not like we’re all expected to be professional human pyschologists and know everything there is to know about people’s body language signals and how their mind works, so why are we expected to know all of this in our dogs?
People unfortunately like to judge and make you feel bad for not knowing everything about dogs just because you have a dog yourself.
I want to help you to understand some of the basics of canine body language so that you can understand what your dog is trying to tell you, in their very subtle (but obvious once you know it) ways.
Not only will this allow you to communicate better with them but most of the time, you can prevent your dog from being in a situation that is uncomfortable for them and avoid potential conflict.
PLEASE NOTE – that these signs are not a road map but merely things to consider. If you have to ask yourself “Is my dog uncomfortable?”, then it’s likely that you’re asking that for a reason and they probably aren’t and are trying to tell you something.
Head turned away
A dog who turns his head away from another dog or person, but has their eyes still on the subject, is not a very happy dog.
You can notice this if you can see the whites of their eyes (Whale-eye). This is often when the dog doesn’t feel like they can escape the situation, so they will turn their head and keep their eyes fixated on that person or dog.
Should you ever notice this, you know that the dog is uncomfortable, and you should both walk away from that dog/person. We never want to put our dog past where they are happy and able to escape if they feel they need to.
A dog’s body movements should always be fluid and relaxed and without tension.
If your dog is playing with another dog and either of them have a tense body posture, this could be a sign that they’re not comfortable with how the other dog is playing, they may feel threatened by the other dog or they could be an anxious dog who is being put in an uncomfortable position with this other more playful dog.
If you witness this, you should stop the play session immediately and allow your dog some space where they can feel safe and at ease again.
Body stiffness can happen in all kinds of situations and could be a part of their ‘freeze’ reaction. This freeze reaction will often come right before the dog has the ‘fight or flight’ reaction. This is a significant moment and shouldn’t be overlooked.
They should be taken away from the situation immediately.
We never want our dogs to get to the point of Fight or Flight, as this means that all of the dog’s body language signals have been ignored or unrecognised up until this point and they now feel like they have no other choice. If the dog can’t flee the situation, they may feel that their only option is fight.
Obviously, we never ever want this to be the case.
So, get to know your dog’s usual body movement and posture and recognise what isn’t normal for them… they are trying to tell you something.
Yawning, licking lips and scratching
Yes, these are all very normal dog behaviours, however like many things, it depends on the context. The situation that your dog is in.
Quite often, when greeting another dog or human, a dog will show ‘appeasement behaviours’; these are to show that they mean no harm and are not a threat. It’s the way that dogs communicate between one another and you will often see them exhibiting these behaviours towards a human if they’re a bit wary or shy.
A dog may also do this whilst in play, they may stop for a second or two to scratch themselves, or yawn or lick their lips… this is their polite way of saying “I’m tired”, I need a break, or “I’m not comfortable with this”. If the other dog has been well socialised and is polite, they will either slow down or stop the play session, because they understand this.
If the other dog isn’t well socialised, they may not know what this mean and carry on, pushing your dog past their comfort zone. It is our job to supervise play and look out for these signs.
This isn’t to say that your dog doesn’t want to play anymore, it could just mean that the other dog is playing a little too rough for them and they’re doing their best to calm the situation.
This can also happen when they meet a new person, or when they’re scared of their surroundings.
The best that you can do is monitor your dog’s behaviours, look out for these subtle signs and take action when they do this.
Teeth showing / Lip curling
Most of us have seen our dogs smile. Some grin from ear to ear, some smiles are more subtle and others can be mistaken for aggressive snarling because of how much teeth they show.
It is important for you to recognise what your dogs smile looks like, as it can be confused with an ‘aggressive’ or scared dog.
When a dog feels threatened, when they’ve tried the appeasement behaviours above and they’ve not been recognised, they may feel like their attempts at calming the situation are not working and therefore turn to ‘fight’ mode.
It’s very important to realise that the majority of dogs DO NOT want to fight… if there is the opportunity to flee the situation, they will. Yes, there are dogs who have (over time) come to realise that their subtle body signals have not saved them but showing their teeth or growling at the subject gets their owners attention and he is finally taken away from that situation. When this is reinforced, this can become their ‘go-to’. But they were not born this way.
Seeing wrinkles in your dog’s nose and the top lip beginning to curl up is the beginning of teeth showing and should be recognised. Your dog has gone past the point of more calming signals, to having to defend themselves.
Remove them from the situation. Or if the teeth showing is aimed at you because you’re trying to take their bone off them for example, remove yourself from the situation.
We don’t want to push them past this point as this is when bites can occur.
As I mentioned, there are so many more body language signals that our dogs display and we can look out for in our dog’s. However, being aware of just these few will help YOU to help your dog be happier and fear free.